John Clay: Zenyatta for Horse of the Year

John McEnroe won four U.S. Open tennis titles and three Wimbledons. He never won the French Open, however. His serve-and-volley game wasn't suited to the clay courts of Paris.

But he kept trying. Ten times McEnroe entered the singles draw at Roland Garros. Ten times he left empty-handed. He reached the finals once, losing in five sets to Ivan Lendl in 1984.

Yet Johnny Mac is considered one of the greatest players in the history of tennis.

It's an abject lesson to the great debate being staged by Thoroughbred racing fans after last weekend's thrilling Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

Does Horse of the Year go to Zenyatta, the 5-year-old mare who campaigned on Southern California's synthetic surfaces and improved to 14-for-14 by becoming the first female to win the $5 million Classic?

Or does Horse of the Year go to Rachel Alexandra, the 3-year-old who was a perfect 8-for-8 at eight different tracks, who won the Kentucky Oaks by 20¼ lengths, and was the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years?

The vote here goes to Zenyatta.

She showed up for the Breeders' Cup.

Rachel did not.

That's not to take anything away from Rachel, or owner Jess Jackson, who, after purchasing the filly in May, had the fortitude to put her against the boys on three occasions. Rachel won all three, including the Woodward Stakes against older males.

"Rachel Alexandra spent the year taking on the toughest challenges for 3-year-old fillies," the great Andy Beyer told USA Today's Tom Pedulla after the Breeders' Cup. "It's just hard to know how to weigh synthetic performances. American champions have historically been determined by dirt races."

Not a fan of the synthetics, Jackson did not send Rachel to run on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface. And in any other year, the no-show probably wouldn't have made a difference. Come the Eclipse Awards ceremony on Jan. 18, Rachel would walk away with top honors.

But this was an extraordinary year in racing, one in which the distaff side featured two females at the top of the sport.

Owned by the classy Jerry Moss, Zenyatta kept right on winning, jockey Mike Smith executing her come-from-behind kick race after race.

To be sure, that the Breeders' Cup was held at Zenyatta's Santa Anita home base, on her preferred surface, was a definite advantage for the John Shirreffs-trained filly.

But Moss and Shirreffs could have easily opted for the Breeders' Cup Lady Classic — Zenyatta would have won easily — and let the filly's legacy be decided by the opinion-makers.

Instead, Zenyatta was entered in one of the better Classic fields, one loaded with global winners of multiple stakes races, boasting a variety of running styles.

Plus, Zenyatta had to deal first with the distraction of the long delay that came when Quality Road refused to be loaded into the gate before being scratched. Then when the gates finally opened, Zenyatta had to execute her late-running style against the best males racing has to offer.

Moreover, Smith had to take his mare from the rail to the far outside to find the room to execute the winning move down the stretch.

It was a remarkable performance by a remarkable racehorse, one we would not have been given the pleasure of seeing had Zenyatta's owners followed Jackson's lead and found a reason to avoid the Classic.

That's why I side with Tim Ice, Summer Bird's trainer, who told the Associated Press last Saturday:

"Each sport has their championship game. If you don't compete in the championship game, then you shouldn't be a champion."